Q&A: For Jack Jedwab the struggle to define Canadian identity as murky now as it was 20 years ago

Saif Alnuweiri
Jack Jedwab. Submitted photo.

We shared the results of the Ipsos poll with Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, and then spoke about his thoughts on the findings.

What does this poll tell us about the state of the Canadian public?

The state of the Canadian public is divided on the issues. That’s what these numbers tell us. Are those divisions better or worse? I think they’re probably similar to what they’ve been for some time. A lot of it is affected by security concerns and anxieties people have around security. I think what underlies this is security concerns, which get transferred to prejudice towards Muslims. We have shifted in some ways from anxieties around economic concerns, and the economic contribution of immigrants. But Canadians also think that immigrants make an important contribution to the country economically, which is a big change than what we’ve seen in polling 20 years ago.

Any areas where the responses were unexpected?

There’s nothing in there that sort of surprises me because it’s not inconsistent with the polling I’ve been doing. We’re always sort of in this 50/50 area. Look at the whole issue on the irreconcilable conflict issue between Muslims and the West. Only in the last polls, which I think was affected by the shooting in Quebec City on January 29, have I seen any change with a narrow majority thinking it may be reconcilable and the perception about Muslims shifting. Some of it is also attributable to government messaging, which has been a lot more positive and we need to continue with more positive messaging.

How much of our identity is positive stereotyping or wishful thinking?

I think the sunny ways is right now in the lead. But we are living in a very volatile period globally and our perceptions are very affected by events, so there can be catalysts that can shift our opinion. The polling I’ve been doing over 10 years tracks levels of anxiety about terrorism and look at underlying issues, has really demonstrated the importance of events. So when there’s a bombing somewhere in the world, there’s a shift in levels of anxiety. So I think we need to be vigilant. But I think there’s a certain degree of consistency. I think if you ask the same question a year from now you’ll probably see the same type of numbers.

What direction do you think the country is going in?

It’s very hard to predict the future because that means predicting what’s going on globally and our perceptions are very affected by the images we see as much in our neighbourhood as we see globally. We’re seeing Brexit issues. We’re seeing, south of our border, serious divisions in the population and I think a very unhealthy discourse with respect to religious and racial diversity. So, will we try to define ourselves in opposition to that as Canadians? It’s hard to say, but will we define ourselves in opposition to that? I’d like to think we’ll continue to do that.

How does this poll square with the image we Canadians have of ourselves?

I don’t think we can say suddenly we’re not as open as we think. I don’t think we’ve ever been as open as we like to think of ourselves. I think that’s true on an individual and a collective level. We’re always going to struggle with those issues. I think things have changed in the past 20 or 30 years. I think language has been and remains a very important definer of our multiple identities. Race relations have become increasingly important, as has religion, but in a different way. It’s no longer Catholic and Protestant that defines the dominant interaction but the place of secularism, Christianity and other religions with a particular focus and sometimes an unhealthy one on Islam. I think we will continue to work through the issue of trying to address prejudice towards Muslims in Canada. The reconciliation with indigenous peoples has become the dominant issue on the government’s agenda and going forward it will continue to be central as we work towards our 200th anniversary expect continued efforts to try to come to terms with the country’s often challenged history as regards to Canada’s indigenous peoples.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.